Thieves of Pleasure: A vicious fraternal war rewards Alfonso VI with the artistic and poetic treasures of al-Andalus

Thieves of Pleasure: A vicious fraternal war rewards Alfonso VI with the artistic and poetic treasures of al-Andalus

By Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rosa Menocal, and Abigail Krasner

Humanities, Volume 30, Number 2 (March/April 2009)

Before Spain was Spain, the Iberian Peninsula was ruled over by a Muslim caliphate, a state of affairs that in the eleventh century gave way to a number of petty kingdoms that functioned like independent city-states. Muslims, Jews, and Christians, for the most part, coexisted peacefully: in fact, the violence arising within the Muslim and Christian communities often exceeded the violence between them. But all three people’s enjoyed a high degree of civilization marked by great achievements in science and art. Still, all was not well. As the balance of power began to shift from Muslim to Christian, a power struggle erupted among Christian rulers that would continue for generations, even as the light of Arabic poetry burned bright enough to influences centuries of Western verse.

Castile’s political history begins in earnest with Sancho the Great, the Christian ruler who in the eleventh century gained control over Aragon, León, Navarre, and Castile during the three decades of civil war that marked the end of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. Though it was his aim to supplant the centuries-old Muslim Umayyad caliphate with a new unified Christian and Hispanic kingdom, at his death, Sancho explicitly dismantled that hard-won and still-nascent empire by dividing his realm among his sons. The most successful was his second son, Ferdinand, first king of Castile. Ferdinand assimilated León into his kingdom when he defeated and killed his brother-in-law in 1037; and he proceeded to absorb his own elder brother’s portion, Navarre, by defeating and killing him in battle as well. Once he had consolidated the power and territories that had been dispersed to his brothers, Ferdinand became a key player in the reversal of fortunes between Christian and Islamic petty kingdoms in the eleventh century, leading straight to the pivotal taking of Toledo in 1085.

Ferdinand’s successful raids into the territories of various Taifas—small rich Islamic kingdoms—during the 1050s and 1060s, starkly reveal the debilitated military state of the nearly two dozen independent and feuding Islamic city-states. The entrancing paradox of this moment is that mercurial and competitive political circumstances proved a fertile breeding ground for virtually every aesthetic and intellectual endeavor. The small Taifa courts vied with one another for scholarly and artistic achievement, as a way of emulating the lost court culture of Umayyad Cordoba. Seville excelled in poetry, Saragossa in song, Toledo in science, agriculture, and astronomy, though learning, poetry, and song resonated in them all. And each vied with the memory of the Umayyad caliphate, and the legend of Madinat al-Zahra (the planned city built by Abd al-Rahman II in 936 and destroyed in 1010) to create opulent palatial settings in which the fabrics and food and scents of court life became the symbols of sovereignty. But none of that extraordinary Taifa culture—the great new love songs of the moment, the scientific studies, botanical research, and philosophical treatises, the exquisite palaces of Taifa cities like Saragossa—was able to keep these Islamic city-states stable, especially when they were often and viciously turned against each other.

Click here to read this article from the National Endowment for the Humanities

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine